Sometimes in the comments below an online feature about, say, a new crime drama, you see people complain about the amount of sex and violence on TV. “Why can’t they make programmes about something nice? Where the characters are pleasant to each other and no one gets killed?!” moans Gladys from Hampshire, and you find yourself thinking furiously, “because that’s not what drama is, Gladys! Drama requires problems! Humans are at their most interesting when they’re conflicted!” The best drama and fiction makes us question ourselves, pushes us to hold conflicting ideas in our heads simultaneously.
Taming The Beast by Australian writer Emily Maguire has haunted me since I first read it – far too young, it must be said – about 13 or 14 years ago. I hadn’t had sex then; I didn’t know what it was like to physically desire someone so badly you’d find yourself thinking, “Jesus Christ, I’d let him do anything he wanted to me”. So when I first heard about My Dark Vanessa – apparently this year’s “most controversial novel” – I immediately thought of Taming The Beast. It’s interesting to look at these novels as a pair, as a) they have so much in common, and b) because one was published in 2004, long before Weinstein, Time’s Up and Me Too, and one has come along in the aftermath of those movements.
Both of these books make incredibly uncomfortable reading, to the point that I’m honestly surprised more hasn’t been made of how triggering Vanessa will be for some people. If you decide to read both or either, take care. Ultimately these novels are about grooming and abuse, and the scenes within are explicit and often excruciating.
The two books share a huge amount of ground, plot-wise: both tell of male English teachers having sexual relationships with female pupils (poetry and book recommendations are deployed as flirtation, wholly predictably). Both female protagonists are bright – Vanessa is a talented writer, while Sarah from Taming The Beast excels in every subject. Both Sarah and Vanessa have strained relationships with their mothers, and neither protagonist is particularly likeable. Both are left with dysfunctional attitudes to sex after the initial “affairs” are over. And both remain in contact with the teachers who abused them long after the pupil-teacher dynamic has been dissolved. Russell has said she did a huge amount of research while writing Vanessa; I’d be very surprised if she hadn’t read Taming The Beast as part of that research.
Stories like these are compelling because of the way they intersect with fantasy. Dominance, submission and power play is one of the most common categories of sexual fantasy, and the teacher-student scenario is practically a trope of the genre. Taming The Beast and My Dark Vanessa explore what happens when an abuser maps fantasy on to reality and calls it love: the teachers in both books claim to have fallen in love with their teenage students. What’s more, it’s a story we love to keep telling, in various iterations: from The Professor by Charlotte Brontë, to Educating Rita, to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, to Zoe Heller’s Notes On A Scandal and Alissa Nutting’s Tampa: we have always wanted to examine the fallout zone of where unchecked lust and power collide. (The last two in that list are particularly noteworthy as they flip the clichéd gender set-up and feature female teachers and male pupils.)
Maguire’s novel does not date brilliantly, especially when reread in a post-Me Too world. There’s a lot of misogyny, for one thing, both internalised and otherwise – Sarah is scornful of her female friends’ desires to marry and have children, and so seduces their boyfriends simply because she can, an extreme version of the Cool Girl. Then again, the men in Taming The Beast don’t come out of it well either – habitually unfaithful, weak, and callous. Mr Carr, Sarah’s teacher, not only preys on an underage student, he’s also into violent, aggressive sex. If there were any conversations about boundaries, safewords and consent in the book, you could argue that there was a BDSM element to their relationship, but there isn’t, so he simply comes across as abusive and cruel. And at the end of the book, Sarah is still convinced that what she has with Mr Carr is true love. By contrast, when we leave Vanessa, she is at least beginning to reconsider and reframe what she’s been through.
But Taming The Beast isn’t without its strengths; there are many good reasons I’ve thought about it on a weekly basis for well over a decade. The thing that makes it impossible to forget is the way it depicts what can happen when two people connect physically and emotionally, and the havoc that is wreaked when desire hums and crackles across a power divide. Maguire captures the way lust – or this twisted version of it – has a way of heightening everything. In the early days of her encounters with Mr Carr, Sarah feels “as if the edges of her body were thicker… as if she disturbed the air when she moved through it. When she ran barefoot to the bathroom each morning, she felt every fibre of the carpet as it was flattened under her feet.” Eating toast for breakfast is sensory overload: “She could feel every individual taste bud being awakened by the strawberry jam. The stimulation was so intense that she couldn’t eat more than half a slice.” It’s not a celebration of desire – hell fucking no – it’s more a warning, a cautionary tale. Sarah does not exactly flourish when she’s with Mr Carr. Their union is the opposite of healthy.
My Dark Vanessa is the more nuanced and arguably more responsible take on the teacher-pupil dynamic. We see everything through Vanessa’s eyes, both as it happens when she’s 15, and as she looks back from the vantage point of her early thirties and starts to process her experiences amid the beginnings of a wave of allegations against high-profile men (the ‘Me Too’ movement is never mentioned by name, but its presence is felt in the chapters narrated by the adult Vanessa). Her initial refusal to see what happened to her in the same light as the news stories that break around her is frustrating, but also, like so much in this book, fascinating. The reader watches with horror as the young Vanessa is exploited by Mr Strane – he, a teacher 27 years her senior, saying “[I am] pathetically in love with you”. Telling her “you’re in charge here, Vanessa. You decide what we do”. Vanessa’s response to this, a thought she doesn’t utter aloud, rings in one’s head for days: “I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”
The power to say no at any point, while knowing you are not in control of the situation, that you are very much at someone else’s mercy? Like I said: take care with this book.
Writing a teenage character who is realising she has some sort of sexual power but not the years and experience to know when she’s being manipulated is a daring thing. An unpalatable truth the novel isn’t afraid to face is that there is a thrill in knowing someone wants you, almost regardless of the circumstances. The first time it happens, you don’t know what to do with the knowledge. To be a teenage girl is to be hungry and unsure, as porous and as easily crushed as chalk. So if, as in Vanessa and Sarah’s cases, the person who wants you is someone older, someone in a position of authority, someone with the years and experience you don’t have yet, the damage can be life-altering.
Neither book shies away from that; both women are moulded and scarred by the events of their teen years. Both novels prove the absolute necessity of stories on every single page. As a species, we cannot be without art. We need to keep making it in order to solve the things science cannot. We tell tales like this to explain our flawed, conflicted selves; we use fiction to step safely into dark places and drag hidden things into the light.